Once there was a woman who sat in the street and watched her house burn down. Dancing against a starless sky, the flames made her think of candles in church, for this woman was a Christian sort of woman. The dark smoke rising from those candles seemed to carry her prayers up to Heaven. For what did she pray? She might have prayed for her parents, trapped by the blaze in an upstairs room. She might have prayed that the chain of men passing buckets would pass them more quickly. She might have prayed that her two beautiful sisters would love her better, or that God would send her a good Christian husband. In her startled, lost-to-the-world state, however, it didn’t occur to her to pray for any of these.
But imagine you were strolling through town that night. Drawn to the drama of the flames, you’d have noticed a figure neither frail nor hearty, neither blonde nor dark, perched on the lip of a water trough. Her wide eyes you’d have noticed first, reflecting the light from the burning house. Being an observant type, you’d have noticed, too, her dishevelled state. Ah, you’d have thought to yourself, this must be one of the unfortunate residents, woken from her dreams and chased from her home by impatient flames. Perhaps your fancy would have reached further, seeing in this isolated figure a subject for the painter’s brush: Orphan of the Blaze. (She was indeed an orphan, or soon would be, though you could hardly have known that.)
Only . . . would this figure really please an artist’s eye? You’d no wish to be cruel, especially in the circumstances, but at a time when a young woman’s fortune was all in her face, this particular young woman’s was no oil painting. Oh, she did not lack a nose or eyes; she had a mouth, lips, eyebrows, cheeks, even a forehead. The pieces were all there but their arrangement somehow failed to please. Who but a philosopher could understand these things? And, shaking your head at the cruelty of a world that left such women to float on its heaving tides, you’d have continued on your way, ready for a soft pillow and warm bed.
And that would have been the last we heard of this poor woman – let’s call her Karen for Karen was her name – but for the fact that yours were not the only feet traversing the town that night. And that this other pair of feet belonged to a certain national treasure, a man whose identity (for reasons that will soon become clear) we dare not reveal. A man who, like his good friend Dickens, was a habitual night-walker. The blaze drew him, too, and Karen became aware of a tall figure standing before her, its face cast in shadow by the blaze. ‘Excuse me, Miss,’ said the tall figure, ‘but I see that your feet are bare.’
Glancing down, Karen saw to her surprise that she was indeed barefoot, having run from the house without slippers.
‘Here, let me cover them for you,’ said the shadow-faced stranger, and promptly knelt in the street.
What happened then Karen couldn’t afterwards say for certain. Her attention must have wandered back to the flames for the next thing she knew the stranger had vanished. And on her feet she wore a pair of fine silk stockings. Were they his? And was she imagining this or had she felt a momentary warm pressure, as of lips, on either foot?
Only wait a while; the story is all out of sequence. Who is this Karen woman and what do we know of her background? Evidently a brief biography is in order. I’ll tell you for starters that she came from an excellent family and was the youngest of three daughters. Hers was a blessedly uneventful childhood until, at age eleven, she tumbled from a haycart and broke her left wrist (an event that has no bearing on our present narrative). A healthy girl and cherished by her parents, as she matured to womanhood Karen grew first thoughtful and then troubled and finally deeply unhappy. Why so? Each of her older sisters was a celebrated beauty. Both had been married at eighteen – the elder to a spritely young diplomat, the other to a mustachioed actor – while Karen, at twenty, lacked so much as a suitor.
Every night, kneeling by her narrow bed, she prayed for a husband. Each morning in chapel, too, she prayed and, with hands raised to cover her face, sometimes shed a tear. What was to be done with the poor girl? Her mother, having no experience of an unmarriageable daughter, ordered the carriage to be prepared. She took Karen to see her two sisters. Both listened attentively and promised assistance. One promised to talk to a middle-aged merchant, the other to a bald-headed banker of similar vintage. Each took it upon herself to remind her young sister that she couldn’t afford to be choosy.
Did the beautiful sisters make any real efforts at their matchmaking? If so, they weren’t successful. Karen turned twenty-two and then twenty-five. Scarcely did she leave her parents’ home, except to attend daily services. Most of her waking hours were spent over the Bible; when not reading she engaged in needlework, embroidering lace cloths and handkerchiefs with images and mottoes from Scripture. Over the years her clothes, though of good quality, had grown sombre, losing their colours like November leaves. She herself had grown pale and rather austere, an industrious shade caught in the light from the window. All in all it wasn’t hard to see which way Karen was headed: for the sisterhood, fasting and good works, a wedding date with Our Lord.
Some story that would that have been! Fortunately, as we know, matters took a different, rather stranger turn, one that involved a tragic fire, a national treasure, and a pair of unshod feet.
A week had passed since the night of the fire, passing as time does only in stories. Karen was lodging at the house of the middle sister and her husband, the actor. The business of her dear parents’ funeral was behind her, but not the sadness of their loss. At intervals, however, her grief did relent, giving way to thoughts of the shadowy stranger. Had she dreamt him? Were it not for the fine silk stockings, she might have thought so. Only with her feet in these stockings, she’d discovered, could she get a good night’s rest. Without them she was a prey to fiery dreams. So each morning, before breakfast, she hand-washed the stockings and set them to dry. And each night, after saying her prayers, she slipped them back on. As she did so, imagining him there at her feet, his fingers unrolling and smoothing the silk, she felt a queer little twist of pleasure.
In the mean time, the well-known stranger was making inquiries all over town. To discover the whereabouts of the fire’s sole survivor required no detective. For the first time in her twenty-eight years Karen received a scented note. In its pages the stranger declared his admiration and begged her to grant him an audience. The note was far too long to reproduce it here (besides, there may be copyright issues) but suffice to say it contained much praise for Karen’s feet. They were two perfect little swans, and a good deal more of that variety. The note was signed HCA.
Did you ever receive a note like that? Karen certainly hadn’t. Had she been a Frenchwoman, one of those demi-mondaines, she might have known how to respond, but nothing could be further from the case. Recall that she had no notion either as to who her admirer might be. And even if she’d guessed, or learned that he was a prominent national treasure, there was still the curious content of his note to consider. To whom could she turn for advice? Alas, her dear Mama could no longer avail her. She might have turned the note over to the sister beneath whose roof she lodged, but this possibility was no sooner conceived than rejected. She might have handed it back to the servant who’d no doubt been bribed to deliver it, told him to tell the sender, No response. But instead she read the note again, inhaled its scent of lavender, and then read it a third time.
The note grew no less curious but it wasn’t actually disrespectful; in a way it was flattering. It was rather agreeable to have one’s feet praised with such imagination, and such fine handwriting too. Setting the note on the bureau of her little attic room, she sat down to unfasten her boots. Now hitherto she’d paid little attention to her feet. They carried her from place to place, were sometimes cold and sometimes warm, sometimes even smelly. Now and then an untrimmed toe might poke its head through a woolen sock. For the most part, however, Karen’s feet, like those of other women of her time, were seldom seen. Setting her bare feet side by side on a low stool, she regarded them as if for the first time. They were rather lovely!
When at length the servant returned to ask was there any message, he found Karen still with her feet mounted on the stool. Having first discovered a suitable coin in her apron and sworn the fellow to secrecy, she told him there was. Hastily she wrote a note of her own. Her sister had a singing lesson the following afternoon. Karen would grant her admirer an interview at precisely four o’clock.
Fifteen minutes before the appointed hour Karen was installed in the drawing room, feeling like a butterfly enmeshed in someone’s net. Since she’d made this appointment, her emotions had switched back and forth between two somehow parallel states: elation and a frantic, hand-wringing terror. It was the latter that now held sway, occasioned not only by the upcoming interview but by the boldness of her own conduct. Exchanges of notes, go-betweens, furtive meetings; weren’t these the pastimes of women in novels? The thought that she might herself become one of these women – women of whose wickedness she’d heard but never actually read – made her tremble with fear, and yet, at the same time, it thrilled her. And this contradiction within herself she found deeply troubling.
By the time her visitor was shown into the room Karen had worked herself into a right old state. She managed to say good afternoon but was unable to raise her eyes as the man crossed the parquet floor, seated himself across from her and set down his hat on the solid oak table. (Karen had prevailed upon the servants so to rearrange the furniture that the table might serve as a rampart.) Nothing in her life had prepared her for this moment; she could only sit and wait for her admirer to speak.
Mercifully, the wait was of brief duration.
‘That night in the street when I first set eyes on you,’ he began in a strangled voice, like a woman in a too-tight corset, ‘the very night of my fiftieth birthday, will live in my memory, my love, for as long as this heart of mine keeps rhythm. It was for me the first day of my life. I had been alive but never before had I lived till my tired eyes rested on those so exquisite feet.’
On and on he went in this vein and, as he did so, Karen’s terror slowly gave way to curiosity. At length, cautiously raising her eyes, she got her first look at her admirer. His long face was not a youthful one and rather pinched she felt. It was undistinguished and yet it had a certain distinction. She almost thought she knew him. That she felt able to study his face so openly, to puzzle over its familiarity, was due to the fact that her visitor’s gaze remained lowered all the while, fixed on a point beneath the table. Thank Heavens she’d settled on her sensible leather boots!
And still he talked – one long, polished sentence after another in praise of her feet. It was flattering, of course, but also a little tiring. She began to wonder how much time had passed. How long before her sister returned from her lesson? With the fire lit the drawing room was warm, and twice she had to stifle a yawn. These praises were all very well but she began to think she preferred them in written form. Where exactly was this interview going? Had this been his only purpose in requesting it? Raising her fist to her mouth, she produced a nice, interrogative cough.
Her cough had just the desired effect. The gentleman first fell silent then looked up sharply, blinking behind thick spectacles, and their eyes met. His face reddened and it was the national treasure’s turn to clear his throat. ‘I have come, dearest Karen, to make you an offer. I wish to ask for your hand in holy matrimony. No greater pleasure could exist for me in this earthly life than to call you my wife.’
In the wake of this long-winded but nonetheless abrupt declaration, Karen heard a carriage pull up. While alarming, the sound also came as something of a relief. ‘You must go!’ she told him and lowered her gaze, feeling butterflyish once again.
‘You give me no answer?’
‘I shall consider your proposal,’ she managed to say. ‘But please, you must leave now.’
‘Permit me first to kneel and kiss those shiny boots.’ And, without waiting for her answer, he pushed back his chair and lowered himself to hands and knees.
Alarmed, she pushed back her own chair but he only crawled after her. He was fully beneath the table when she heard the street door. ‘My sister!’
To his credit, her visitor heeded this second warning. By the time the door to the drawing room creaked open he was back on his feet, stooped over, brushing the dust from his pin-striped trousers. Karen didn’t dare look at her sister.
‘Good day,’ her visitor spoke with formality and picked up his hat.
‘Good day, sir,’ she heard him say as he quitted the room at full tilt.
Puzzled, she looked up to see not her sister but her brother-in-law standing in the doorway, twisting his waxed moustache. ‘Good Lord,’ he exclaimed, ‘that was [here he uttered the full name of the national treasure, the one with the initials HCA, whose identity we dare not divulge].’
The next morning Karen was up very early, in time for the first service of the day at the town’s principal church. Afterwards, as the church slowly emptied, she remained seated in her pew. She was in no hurry to return to her sister’s house. The night before she’d endured a second interview, summoned by her sister to explain the first. In the face of persistent questioning as to the nature of her relations with the celebrated gentleman, Karen had maintained a stubborn silence. And when her brother-in-law joined the ‘Inquisition’, and questions turned to threats, she beat a tearful retreat. But Karen knew her sister wouldn’t let up until she had the full story.
The knowledge that her admirer was none other than a certain national treasure, an author whose tales were known and loved through all Europe, had only increased her agitation. On the one hand, there was the prospect of marriage, and marriage to a man more distinguished (perhaps wealthier too) than the husband of either of her sisters. On the other hand, the question of why, out of all the world’s women, he had set his heart on her.
The old pastor was going about the church snuffing candles. At the sight of him, Karen’s cheeks grew warm and her conscience stirred like a cat. Of course she knew precisely why her celebrated suitor had fixed on her. It was all on account of her feet. And, though she’d never before heard of such a devotion, she rather suspected it couldn’t be right. Just look at the sins she’d been led to commit already: dishonesty, vanity and who knew what others?
‘Pastor, may I confide?’
The old fellow was hard of hearing so that she had to repeat her request, but he granted it without demur. She followed at his heel into a side chapel where shafts of sunlight fell through high windows. Side by side, they settled themselves on a polished pew. ‘What troubles you, my child?’ inquired the old pastor.
Karen decided it was best to come straight out with it. ‘A man has asked to marry me, a fine, respectable man, but he seems only to be in love with my feet. Is this wrong?’
Whether the pastor had experience of similar cases, I cannot say, but he never blinked and it was only a matter of seconds before he delivered his opinion. ‘My child, such a marriage could not be pleasing in the eyes of God. Indeed, it would be an abomination. For a man to take a woman to wife, he must love not simply a part of her but her whole being, body and soul.’
‘Then you would not advise me to accept this man’s offer?’
‘I could not advise it, child.’
And so Karen left the church with a lighter step, her conflict resolved by the good old pastor. She set out for home resolved to make a clean breast to her sister, and then dispatch the servant to decline the marriage proposal. No, more than that, to inform a certain renowned author that she preferred not to see him again.
Isn’t it a wonderful feeling when you’ve been worrying over a problem for days, biting your fingernails and barely picking at your plate, and suddenly, unmistakably, the solution presents itself? Sadly, for Karen, this feeling did not last long. Before she was halfway home to her sister’s, passing along the cobbled streets of the still sleepy town, its shutters only now clacking open, her new resolution had begun to crumble. She wasn’t so sure she liked the pastor’s advice. That’s to say, despite the emotional upheavals the scented note had occasioned, she wasn’t sure she cared to return to the status quo ante. To a quiet, fading-away sort of life spent in attic rooms and churches, under the thumb of her sisters or else consigned to a nunnery.
As these gloomy thoughts turned between her ears, her feet slowly drew to a halt, leaving her standing in the shade of an elderly elm, you know the one, at the topmost corner of the market square. She didn’t notice the approach of a middle-aged woman. ‘Karen, is that you? It is you! Don’t you know your old governess?’
Despite some fresh wrinkles and grey hairs, Karen did know her beloved governess and was more than glad, after an interval of several years, to see her again. For her part, the governess was close to tears, lamenting the deaths of Karen’s parents and the loss of the fine old house. She insisted that Karen come back with her for coffee. She now worked as a market-trader, selling books and writing materials, and her plain, tidy home was in the very next street.
As they talked and drank their mugs of coffee and played with a young tabby cat who’d stepped in through the window to join them, it came to Karen that she should ask the older woman’s advice. Now that she thought of it, hadn’t the governess, before entering her father’s employ, had ‘a past’? Karen seemed to recall something of the kind. Without further ado, she set down her mug. ‘I’ve had an offer of marriage.’
The woman’s squeal sent the tabby back out through the window. ‘I knew it! How wonderful! Tell me quickly, who is he?’
Karen knew she ought not to reveal the identity of her unconventional, not to say peculiar suitor. To her credit, she did pause for several seconds. But hadn’t they read the man’s tales together, over and again, with Karen perched on this woman’s knee? How could she not tell?
The former governess could scarcely believe her ears. Karen had to assure her more than once, and even offered to swear on the Bible. ‘There’s just one thing . . .’ And she proceeded to tell the whole story, right up to the talk she’d had with the old pastor.
‘Stuff and nonsense!’ exclaimed the good woman when she heard the cleric’s advice.
‘You think so?’
‘Those old pastors, they know nothing whatsoever about the world. Don’t men fall for different bits and pieces of us all the time? Our breasts of course, and our blue, blue eyes, pale hands, tiny ears, yellow hair. Not to mention certain items of our clothing. I never heard of feet before, but I don’t see why not.’
‘So you think I should accept?’
‘I didn’t say that.’ Here her voice dropped as voices do when they have vital information to relate. ‘There’s one thing you ought to find out: is it your feet he loves, or women’s feet in general? If it’s just yours, then marry him and be happy.’
There was just one problem, Karen thought as she left her dear ex-governess and continued on her way: how on Earth to make the test? Still mulling this problem, she reached her sister’s house to be told there was a package. She knew without asking who’d sent her the package. And even as she unsealed it in the privacy of her room she knew just what he’d sent. Only who could have known they’d be so red? So vibrantly, vividly red that as she sat cradling them on the floor everything else in the attic – curtains, bedspread, rug, wallpaper – and even the springtime world beyond her narrow window seemed cast in black-and-white.
Her heart fluttered. Her fingers were clumsy as they untied the laces of the plain old boots she’d worn to church. Off came her dark wool socks and on slid the silky stockings. With her hands then she explored the red shoes, savouring the smooth, supple leather. First she put on the left shoe, then the right one. She hesitated, hardly daring to buckle them, but then she did, she dared. The shoes were a perfect fit. The next moment she was up and dancing a jig the like of which that old attic had never beheld.
She was dancing still – who knows when she might have stopped – shoes flashing, heels tapping, when the door sprang open to reveal not one but both of her sisters. Whether they were more startled by the sight of their dancing sister or Karen by their unforeseen intrusion I’m not sure I could say. I can tell you that Karen quit her dancing and sat down hard in a chair, and that the eldest of the sisters was first to find her voice – ‘Do you forget that we are in mourning?’ – closely followed by the middle sister – ‘Where in the name of God did you get those dreadful shoes?’
‘They’re not dreadful,’ retorted Karen in no gentle tone. ‘And it’s none of your business where I got them.’
‘As long as you live under this roof it’s my business,’ said sister number two. ‘And don’t think we don’t know who sent them.’
‘Whatever has become of you?’ asked the eldest. ‘You used to be such a decent, well-behaved sister.’
‘He’s turned her head, that’s what,’ opined the second.
‘You’re just jealous,’ yelled Karen so fiercely that her sisters, who’d been standing over her somewhat, both took a step backwards.
‘Please try to calm yourself.’ The elder sister adopted a milder, cajoling tone. ‘We’re only here to help you.’
‘We’re your sisters,’ the second sister joined in. ‘Now why don’t you tell us everything from the start?’
‘Yes,’ said the eldest, ‘tell your sisters. You can trust us to know what’s best.’
Give them their due; the sisters were passable actresses. Karen almost fell for their performance but then she recalled all the years of petty cruelty. Her eyes lit on her new red shoes and something peculiar happened – as if the shoes sent a pulse of energy right up through her. She was out of the chair and on her feet. Her left foot was lifted, held poised and then swung. Somehow or other, there’s no getting away from it, a hefty kick was aimed at her two sisters.
Mercifully they managed to dodge the impact, which would likely have shattered their bones. Clinging to one another as though the attic room were a ship at sea, they made it to the door. And before Karen could catch them they’d slammed it behind them. She heard a key turn and her eldest sister’s breathless voice through the door. ‘And you can stay there till you remember how to act like a proper Christian.’
‘Or till we fetch the pastor to you.’ That was the middle one.
‘Or the doctor.’
‘You needn’t expect any supper.’
Karen’s sole response was to drive her right shoe against the foot of the door. The kick split the wooden panel top to bottom and sent her two sisters scuttling down the stairs.
Well, I don’t know about you but all that sisterly drama left me in need of a lie-down. It had much the same effect on Karen; she stretched herself face-down on the bed, still fully dressed and still in her shiny red shoes. Her anger was swift to abate and, in its wake, came not sleep but some good hard thinking.
First she thought about what her sisters had said. Reluctant as she was to admit it, there did seem to be a measure of truth in their words. When she considered some of her recent behaviour, even Karen was surprised. The stubbornness, the bold words and steely resolve, not to mention that kick! From where she lay in the darkening attic room, these seemed less like isolated incidents, less out of character, and more like evidence of a new and different Karen. Could it be that there were two Karens? And, if so, what had brought about the transformation? The red shoes? But it had started before those. The fire? Losing her dear parents, or the encounter with the stranger in the street? The scented note, or one of the several interviews that ensued? She couldn’t put her finger on it, but nor could she deny it: she wasn’t quite the same.
Rolling onto her back, she gazed at the darker square of ceiling, as if this might clarify the matter. It seemed that there were two Karens now; the good, plain, timid Christian, and the bold, jig-dancing, door-kicker. The question to ask, perhaps, was not what had caused her transformation, but could it be reversed? And, if it could, if she could change back to the old Karen, did she want to? This last was a tough one to answer. Truth to tell she was a little afraid of the new Karen. But then reverting to her former self felt like setting free a butterfly only to capture it again. It felt sad, cruel.
Only what about her immortal soul? What of eternal damnation? Screwing up her eyes she tried to picture Hell with its many ingenious torments. She’d heard tell of it often enough; she’d read about it too. But, hard as she tried, she couldn’t quite see it. And all of a sudden she wasn’t sure she believed in Hell.
She was still struggling to come to terms with this unbelief when a voice spoke in her ear – or was it in her head? In the dark like that it wasn’t easy to tell. You were never shy or nice, or good at all, said the voice, not really.
So why did I behave that way? she wanted to know.
I’m not sure if this is making much sense to you but to Karen, that night, it all seemed perfectly clear. That was the night the old Karen died and a new one stepped into her shoes. The only question then was how this new Karen should arrange her life. How to get out from under her sisters? Should she marry her celebrated suitor? Compared to her earlier, more complex reflections, these were mere arithmetic. By the time dawn came picking out the shapes in her attic, she had it all figured out.
Her first step seems like the cleverest to me, but maybe you already know the trick. Maybe you’ve even had occasion to try it. The old pencil-to-push-key-from-keyhole, and the sheet-of-paper-to-catch-key-as-it-falls (a sheet torn, in this instance, from Karen’s bedside Bible – sacrilege perhaps, but needs must and it was only the book of Psalms). The trick worked; she slid the paper back under the door and with it came the key. In a trice she was free, soft-footing down the stairs, through the hallway, the main door, out into a pale, misty morn.
Her first port of call was the office of a certain lawyer. This certain lawyer was responsible, inter alia, for administering the terms of her father’s will. (This will had been opened and read several days previously, at the home of his eldest daughter. It seemed not to matter at the time, but evidently it does now. Really, one can’t include everything!) The lawyer, like Karen, was an early riser. It was his habit, having purchased the newspaper en route to the office, to give it a thorough reading at his desk, with his tea, before any clients appeared to disturb him. So when his clerk put his head round the door to ask if he was busy, he frowned. Hearing the name of his prospective client, however, he bid the man usher her in.
He had only the vaguest recollection of Karen from the reading of the will. A birdlike creature, the least prepossessing of the merchant’s three girls, unmarried and, if appearances were anything to go by, destined to remain so. As she was shown into his office he looked up, his features already arranged into a look of gentle condescension and some suitably bland greeting taking shape on his lips. Catching sight of her red shoes, however, he was stunned to silence. All the way across his Persian rug he followed the shoes’ progress. Not until the moment of their eclipse by his solid mahogany desk did he blink, cough and lift his gaze to meet Karen’s. ‘Er, good morning,’ he managed to say then. ‘A pleasure to see you again so soon.’
‘I’m here about my father’s will,’ said Karen.
‘Is there a clause that you fail to understand?’ The lawyer’s composure was soon restored. ‘I’m sure your esteemed brother-in-law will explain . . .’
‘I’d like a cheque to cover my share of the inheritance.’
‘Come, come, my dear. Is that wise? As you are aware, the money is to be invested on your behalf. Your good brother, the honourable . . .’
Karen felt an urge to give the old fool’s desk a solid kick. Her left foot even rose a couple of inches off the floor and the leg gave a twitch, but then she had a better idea, an inspiration you might call it. Edging her chair backwards onto the rug, she slowly crossed her legs. Together these actions had the effect of raising her left shoe, and with it an inch of bare ankle, into the lawyer’s field of vision. His voice stuttered then stopped, like a tap running dry.
Thought so, thought Karen. ‘Now, how soon can I have that cheque?’
‘Lunchtime,’ said the lawyer, like a man talking in his sleep.
‘I shall return myself to collect it.’ And, uncrossing her legs, she lowered the left shoe.
The lawyer nodded, coughed and blinked, like a man caught napping, but Karen was already walking to the door. ‘Thank you, thank you,’ he called after her. ‘My clerk will shoe you out.’
Time flies in stories, and with money, as we all know, everything is possible. Before the sun had set over the town’s western outskirts, Karen was sitting down to a dinner of lamb stew in a suite of furnished rooms overlooking the market square. She ate at her leisure, relishing both the rich red wine sauce and her new-found freedom. Though she didn’t see fit to pinch herself, still it was hard to believe she was sitting at her own table, eating her own food off her own plate in her own little home. Best of all, after playing the poor relation at her sister’s these last weeks, she was able to enjoy her own company, pleasing no one but herself. For her meal she wore a simple dress, an apron and warm slippers. No woman can be always in her red shoes.
Her former governess, who’d helped her dust and set the place in order, had but recently departed and, hearing a knock at the street door, Karen guessed she’d forgotten something. Instead she discovered one of her sister’s servants on the doorstep, none other than the note-carrier, the go-between. ‘Got another note for yer,’ said the fellow whose diction, we may as well confess, left much to be desired.
‘How did you know where to find me?’ asked Karen, feeling for a moment that her hard-won freedom was in jeopardy.
‘They said you was at the lawyer’s, so I ‘ad a word with ‘is clerk.’ Here the servant grinned, showing highly irregular teeth, and even treated her to a wink. ‘One fing led to another, didn’t it?’
It had never before struck Karen how much she disliked this fellow, who was clearly angling for a tip. ‘Well?’ she demanded. ‘Where is this note?’
With a surly look, he produced the note from his waistcoat pocket. ‘I’m meant to wait for yer answer.’
‘Find somewhere else to wait.’ She fished a small coin from the pocket of her apron. ‘You may return for my answer in an hour.’
If not likeable, the servant was at least punctual. He was back at her door in an hour and Karen was ready with her response. This time around the national treasure’s note had been unscented and mercifully concise: I cannot sleep. I cannot eat. When, my darling, may I hope for a response?
Her own note was equally to the point: Be at my new lodgings next Wednesday at four o’clock. I have devised a trial by which you may prove your love. Pass it, and I will agree to be your wife. Having signed the note, she then had to add a postscript: Thanks for the shoes.
Entrusting this note to the servant, she dismissed him, only to call him back before he’d rounded the corner. ‘One more thing,’ she told him. ‘Tell your Mistress, my sister, that I won’t be requiring my belongings. She may dispose of them as she sees fit.’
The way it worked was this. (You can think of other ways no doubt, perhaps even better ways, but this was the one Karen devised with the help of her governess.) By half past three on Wednesday afternoon a dozen women of various hues, shapes and sizes were standing barefoot on the wooden floor of Karen’s bedroom. Karen herself was one of the twelve. A thirteenth woman, sitting in the window seat, completed the scene, though she was not showing her feet. This was the old governess (old as in former, you understand, rather than aged, though she was no longer young either) who’d been charged with directing and overseeing the conduct of the trial.
By a quarter to four the twelve women were seated on Karen’s bed, which had been dragged into the centre of the room. They sat, of course, in close formation, in a tight square, back to back, with legs extended so that just their bare feet overlapped the bed. This bed, I ought to tell you, was one of those big old four-posters, fitted on each of its four sides with a set of black velvet curtains to keep out the drafts.
On the stroke of four a resounding knock at the street-door silenced the chattering, wriggling, giggling women. The worthy ex-governess made haste to draw the four sets of curtains and hurried down the stairs.
‘I have come . . .’
‘Yes, sir, I know why.’ If her heart had quickened at its close proximity to a national treasure, face and voice betrayed no sign. ‘Just you follow me up these stairs and I’ll explain everything.’
The celebrated tale-teller did as he was told.
Picture the scene (naturally, I’ll do my best to help you) that unfolded before him as he stood in the door to the bedroom. The bed at stage centre, its velvet curtains drawn, and six bare feet in three pairs protruding from each of the four sides, the feet appearing to defy gravity, as though they’d been lopped off at the ankle. No sound, no movement from behind the curtains, only the pale pink feet.
‘Are you alright, sir?’ asked the old governess but he only nodded. If he found the whole business peculiar, not to say indecorous, he gave no sign. ‘Love toys with dignity,’ runs the old Latin motto, and never did it seem more appropriate.
Taking him by the hand, she led him over to the window. Keeping his back turned to the bed with its footly embellishments, she explained the procedure. He should imagine that each pair of feet had a number, the numbers running from one to twelve, starting from the side opposite the door and proceeding in a clockwise direction. The gentleman had fifteen minutes in which to consider his choice. On no account was he to touch any of the feet or tamper with the curtains. She would remain in the bedroom and inform him when five minutes had elapsed, and again after ten. Once having made his selection, he should retire downstairs, there to await the lady of the house. ‘Are you ready, sir?’
He was, and she withdrew to a chair in the corner. With the field thus clear, the trial of his love began. How did the national treasure approach it? Even had the prize been less precious, he was by nature circumspect. With his hands clasped behind him he began by making three slow, clockwise circuits of the bed. Having completed this initial review, he fell to examining each pair of feet in turn, starting with the first. (How the dozen women concealed behind the curtains kept quiet and still all this time – not a scratch or a sniff or a sneeze – I’ll never know, but still and quiet they kept.) Some pairs of feet he quickly eliminated from his inquiry, others he studied more closely, muttering to himself, several times descending to one of his knees for a better look. He’d reached pair eleven when the old governess informed him that his first five minutes were up.
The news appeared to startle him. Discounting pair twelve after barely a glance, he strode rapidly to the foot of the bed. Clearly it was here that he felt Karen’s feet were to be found, the only question being were they pair five or pair six. Removing his tweed jacket, he laid it out on the floor and knelt between the rival pairs, inspecting first one then the other in detail. He was still there at the ten-minute mark but stood when it was announced. Gathering up his jacket, he brushed it down and put it back on.
The old governess, detecting a slight smile on his famously pinched features, wondered whether he was ready to go downstairs. But he stayed where he was, dragging a thumb across his chin, gnawing at a knuckle, now and then shifting his gaze between bare feet pairs number five and six. Only with thirty seconds remaining did he move, all but running around to the far side of the bed for a fresh look at pair nine. He was still there, on one knee, when she called time.
Downstairs, with the door to the kitchen closed firmly behind her, she seated the distinguished guest at the solid maple table, with his back to the door and his face to the fire. She was fetching him a cup of water when she heard footsteps on the stairs. Chattering and laughing like schoolgirls released from class, eleven of the twelve women exited the house and with it the story. Minor figures, they remain anonymous, but these eleven women had played no small part in our history, and played it well. One can only hope they were generously compensated for their time.
Of their noisy departure, the distinguished guest seemed unaware. Accepting the cup of water, he brought it to his lips, only to set it down on the table without drinking. His eyes remained on the hearth where a fresh log was beginning to snap and crackle. Only at Karen’s entrance did he stir and turn in his chair, smiling to see that she’d put on his red shoes.
Sitting down opposite him, her back to the fire, she dismissed the old governess with a nod. ‘I’m sorry you had to endure that,’ she told him as the kitchen door closed. ‘When it comes to love and marriage, however, a woman must be sure.’
‘Indeed she must.’ The words were categorical enough but his voice betrayed some consternation. Writers are famously observant – did he detect some alteration in his beloved, a new confidence in her words and manner, a demeanor that was almost bold?
‘So then,’ she said, ‘can you tell me which pair was mine?’
‘And, if I do, you agree to be my wife?’
‘I do.’ She smiled.
‘But if I guess wrongly . . .’
‘Is it a matter of guesswork then?’
‘Not at all. I would know those beauties among a sea of feet, an ocean.’
‘If you guess wrong, I’m afraid this will be our last encounter.’
He swallowed. He nodded. He was like a boy who, having lingered too long on the diving board, now throws himself suddenly headlong. ‘Pair number six.’
Her eyes widened. The smile stayed the same. She shook her head. Her voice was firm but not cruel. ‘Number five.’
‘That cannot be!’ His gaze dropped to the red shoes, as thought they might testify in his favour.
‘But they were.’
‘I don’t believe it. I won’t!’ He half-rose from his chair, fingers curling into fists on the table, but Karen was nothing daunted. ‘Then, sir, you disbelieve my word,’ she told him. ‘I wish you to leave now.’
The effect of these words on her guest was like the air being drained from a balloon. A fearful, hunted look came into his eye, and his voice when it emerged was plaintive. ‘No, please don’t make me go.’ Again his gaze had fallen to her shoes. ‘Let me stay.’
‘I’m afraid not. Really it’s for the best. Shall I send for a carriage?’ Again her voice was more firm than cruel, but when he raised his head he wore a wild look, the look of a man with nothing left to lose. ‘How dare you comport yourself in this fashion? Do you not know who I am?’ The air in the kitchen was like before a thunderstorm. His face was darker too. ‘How dare you? It’s not right. I won’t stand for it, do you hear?’
‘The trial was a perfectly fair one.’
‘Not fair!’ He stamped his foot and pointed a crooked, bony finger at her. ‘You cheated! Cheat! You think I don’t know about your other suitors?’
‘What I do with my time and whom I choose to see are my own affair.’ She spoke coolly though she’d had no notion that he knew about the others. In the past days (I neglected to mention) she’d received a number of flattering, highly agreeable visits from gentlemen of the town, and even one from the capital. There’d been letters, too, poems with flowers, stockings, boots and shoes, even a necklace, and an exquisite little footbath complete with lotions, unguents, and pumice stone. Had the go-between servant been indiscreet, she wondered. Or was it the lawyer? One of her sisters? Surely not the pastor? It mattered not at all; the fact was that Karen and her famous admirer, and her admirable feet, were suddenly the talk of the town. Her current guest was no longer alone in his trembling passion for those ‘perfect little swans’.
As she let herself recall one particular devotee, a cavalry officer who’d brought truffles to her door just that morning, a smile crept back onto Karen’s face. What particular interpretation her guest placed on that smile, and what emotions it provoked in his narrow breast, can best be judged by his reaction. In a trice he was up on his feet, shaking like the leaves on a breezy morning, with the vein in his neck twitching fit to burst his collar. ‘I won’t stand for it, do you hear? Do you hear me, eh? Do you hear?’
Whether Karen alone could have subdued him, it may be best not to wonder. Mercifully, however, it was at just this moment that the door to the kitchen flew open. I must say that Karen addressed her old governess with remarkable sang froid – she might have been inquiring after the postman. ‘Would you be so good as to step out and fetch us a constable?’
‘No, wait!’ cried the celebrated author, once again demonstrating his capacity for shifting from irate to cowed. His voice, which seconds ago had been Hector’s, was suddenly no more than a consumptive’s croak. ‘There’s no need. I was just going.’ And he looked for his hat, only to recall that he’d come bare-headed.
It was almost painful to watch: a world-famous author like that shrinking, turning, slinking from the kitchen like a banished shade. Only he couldn’t resist a backward glance, a glance directed beneath the kitchen table where the brilliant red shoes seemed to pulse with life. ‘If I might . . .may . . . Before I . . . One last time . . .’
‘No,’ said Karen, and this time I’m afraid it was rather cruel. The fact was she’d had it up to here with her temperamental admirer.
He only nodded, turned and continued his snail’s progress towards the street door. Halfway down the passage, however, he turned again, and for the first time Karen flinched. Once, as a child, she’d been cursed by a gypsy. (I can’t include everything! Why, even Tolstoy . . .) The national treasure’s face was a very mask of Medusa. His voice was low and dripped with venom. ‘I thought you a good and simple woman, but now I see you’re like all the others, vain through and through.’1
The rest of it, I think, you can mostly imagine for yourselves. It belongs to what they call another story, or stories. HCA, of course, had his revenge in the form of a little story of his own, a cautionary tale. (That’s what we authors do; life frustrates us so we go away and write stories, tales in which matters arrange themselves more to our liking.) Did Karen ever read this story? It’s possible, but I wouldn’t put money on it. Probably she was too busy creating her own.
She never married but, after its quiet beginning, her life was a full and lively one. The lover of statesmen and princes, a celebrated artist’s model and almost certainly the original for The Barefoot Gypsy, she did rather well for herself. I heard that when she died, in her nineties, they removed eighteen cartloads of boots and shoes from her country villa alone. And then there were all those other stories told about her – men drinking from her footbath, trade in her toenail clippings, her own brothers-in-law fighting a duel – stories that I have no intention of repeating, juicy though many of them might be.
With the wider, the cultural story we’re all familiar. Karen became the world’s first foot goddess – the Western world’s at least, you know those Chinese! – but she was far from the last. From her infamous red shoes, the craze spread in ripples until a whole country, a whole continent was mad for its women’s feet. (Look how many later claimed to have taken part in Karen’s trial of love, hundreds, thousands, and even to have been number six!) We all know the story of fetish and fashion and feet, and we know, too, of the campaigns waged against them, by the church and moral majority, not to mention a certain celebrated writer. Shame and censure, penalties and prohibitions. Bishops and priests putting the fear of God into women too fond of their feet. Heavy boots prescribed for Christian maidens, with eyelets laced right up to the knee. Even papal proclamations:
• No part of woman to be loved in isolation or raised above the level of any other;
• All parts to be modestly covered at all times;
• The new sin of synecdoche.
All calculated to snuff out the worship of women’s feet, but merely managing to drive it underground. Another Latin motto worth recalling, dear Fathers of the Church, Framers of Laws, would-be Managers of Morals: ‘The cat, once out of the bag, will not care to be tamed.’
1 I know what you’re going to ask me, about the trial of love. Did Karen cheat? Was pair number six really hers? And I know you won’t like it when I tell you I’ve no idea. How ever could I? If you want my opinion, I’d say that there may – may! – have been some sleight of hand. In the days leading up to the fateful trial, it may have occurred to Karen that she didn’t much want to marry HCA. Of course, as his wife, she’d have been wealthy. People, her sisters, would have envied her, but only as Mrs HCA. What’s more, he was already middle-aged, as others among her admirers were not. And those sticky-out ears, the unfortunate hair, really, wasn’t he a bit of a boney old windbag? I’m not saying that these were Karen’s exact thoughts.
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